Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Burning Man has outlived its usefulness and coolth

Burning Man has never been particularly useful. It's never really been that cool, and it certainly isn't now.

Since its early days in the 1980s, when a human effigy was burned on a beach in San Francisco (oooh!), the Burning Man Festival relocated to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, about 140 miles (225 km) from the casinos of Reno, and started marketing itself as "the world's largest counter-cultural event". Upwards of 70,000 attend each year now.

The event now has a CEO and charges $575 for an entrance ticket, which doesn't sound particularly counter-cultural. Estimates of the overall cost of attending are in the $1,500 range, so attendees tend to be self-described influencers, drug-dealers, Silicon Valley tech bros (Elon Musk has been a regular attendee for years - go figure!), and second-rank Hollywood/music industry types (Diplo and Chris Rick spring to mind). I guess a few bona fide artists also attend, hoping to leverage the captive well-to-do audience, but presumably these are not starving garrett-dwellers.

The organization claims it wants the event to be carbon-neutral by 2030, but it has not given any indication of how it intends to achieve that. In practice, tens of thousands of gas-guzzling vehicles trail out, Mad Max-style, hundreds of kilometres into the Nevada desert each year (expect six to nine hours, the website says!), where the passengers whoop and make merry and be all counter-cultural for a week or so, and where lots of things get burned. There's even a small temporary airport for the private planes of VIPs. All the facilities and amenities are also trucked in each year, and there are many propane cooking setups and diesel generators at work. Garbage blows around the desert for weeks afterwards, despite a "leave-no-trace" policy. Hardly an environmentally-conscious affair. Climate and anti-capitalist activists have even started blocking the roads out to the festival in protest in recent years, where they are often met with violence.

And now, in addition to the usual extreme 40°C+ heat, dust storms, and the cringe-worthy sunburns, climate change is throwing in floods and mud-slides to the mix. Are we having fun yet? The festival got completely closed down this year due to freak floods, and many thousands were stranded for several days, until the desert dried out a bit and travel was possible again.

Nevada's national guard was put on emergency alert. Food and water were brought in, wifi and charging stations set up, and evacuation shuttles organized (the desert roads were impassable for regular vehicles for several days). So much for the festival's much-vaunted "radical self-reliance". The festival's CEO quipped, "We're very pleased and surprised that there has been such a fuss over us". Also: " We are all well-prepared for a weather event like this". Hmm. Only one person died at the festival this year, and reportedly not due to the weather event, but it could have been so much worse had the rain not eventually let up.

Burning Man in the 2020s has been described as "the wealthy cosplaying Survivor in an inhospitable environment", "a see-and-be-seen desert drug party", and "the worst of libertarian tech-bro culture". It has become a caricature and a travesty of whatever it might once have been. Time to call it a day?

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